Micro-Size Me (An Extended Interview With Fergus Drennan)
A chef describes his year-long pursuit to live off foraged foods found near his home in England.
Last spring, the English countryside became Fergus Drennan's pantry. No farming, no hunting-just gathering. He drinks water from a natural spring, retrieves sea salt from Herne Bay, and even eats roadkill. To challenge himself and encourage others to eat more wild foods, this 36-year-old chef vowed that for a year he would live solely off foods that he could find in the natural areas near his home in Canterbury. Drennan is quick to laugh at his failed acorn breads, but serious about sticking to his foraged feasts. Audubon recently caught up with a rapidly thinning Fergus to see how he's holding up.—Melissa Mahony
Audubon: What inspired you to forage for a year?
Drennan: The time seemed ripe for it. There’s a hidden price of food. It’s petroleum—plastics, packaging, food miles. Also, in this country we waste about 30 percent of our food. I’m drawing attention to these issues, but instead of banging a drum and making an angry noise, I’m doing it in a fun, creative way.
Q: What did you eat for breakfast today?
A: A bowl of chestnut porridge. It was made from my dried supplies of chestnuts, with three dried apple rings that were ground up and some spring water. Sweet and warm and delicious.
Q: Where do you get the spring water from?
A: On a RSPB [Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds] nature reserve. It’s great. Not only is it a major event going to get your water, but you get to see all these birds at the same time.
Q: What’s currently in season in Kent?
A: Wild garlic, seakale, dulse seaweed. St. George’s mushroom and Japanese knotweed are rapidly going out of season (the latter you can cook like rhubarb, sweet or savory). I’ve been cooking it with duck and making it into crumbles [stewed fruit with a crumbly crust] and pies. It’s good, versatile stuff.
Q: When did you realize you could attempt this?
A: I tried in 1995 for two weeks. Well, I tried for three months, but I lasted two weeks. I’ve had the knowledge to survive easily on wild food for about five years. But the real challenge, and this is where my training as a chef comes in, is coming up with delicious dishes everyday.
Q: Do you think you’ll last the entire year?
A: As long as I’ve got my health and I can physically get out there and forage, everything is going to be fine. Having said that, I am losing quite a lot of weight, which is a slight concern.
Q: How much have you lost?
A: I’ve lost a stone (14 pounds) in 24 days, but I’m leveled out now.
Q: What are your sources for fat?
A: I do eat roadkill, so that can be quite fatty—if you find a good female pheasant—but most of the meat I’m finding is very lean. I've eaten duck, pheasant, squirrel and rabbit.
Q: You hate being called the “Roadkill Chef”, why?
A: It’s a brutal term, roadkill, which I don’t like. The other reason is it’s really not a large part of my diet, only like five percent or so.
Q: How do you tell when it’s fresh enough to eat?
Q: I see if rigor mortis has set in, which normally occurs 6 to 12 hours after death. If you pick it up by the legs and it comes up like a flat board, that’s a good sign. Or if it’s warm on a cold day. Or if it’s a bird and there are feathers blowing around the road, then it’s really fresh. The key factor is that it’s intact.
|Sea buckthorn is one of many wild foods foraged by Fergus Drennan. A shrub native to Europe and Asia, sea buckthorn was introduced to Canada some time ago. Its uses range from agricultural to medicinal to nutritional, as the juice is very high in protein, vitamins C and E, and organic acids. For one of Fergus Drennan’s sea buckthorn cheesecake recipes, click here.
|USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database/Herman, D.E., et al. 1996. North Dakota Tree Handbook. USDA NRCS ND State Soil Conservation Committee; NDSU Extension and Western Area Power Administration, Bismarck.
Q: What non-foraged food do you miss most?
A: Coffee. Particularly when writing and I just need that caffeine hit for a bit of inspiration. My replacement is a glass of sea buckthorn juice, which is pretty potent stuff.
Q: You use the herb feverfew as a headache remedy. Are there other medicinal uses for the things you find?
A: Apart from the use of Alexanders root to treat Lyme disease, not really.
Q: Do you have Lyme disease?
A: Fortunately not, but it’s something I’m quite paranoid about, being in the woods so much.
Q: What’s the best thing about foraging?
A: The number one thing is it gives you time to slow down and reflect about the future and especially, what you are doing right now. Foraging can be so engrossing that you don’t have any extraneous concerns about what’s going to happen tomorrow or what’s going to happen next week. You are in a good environment where you can think quite clearly.
Q: And the worst thing?
A: Getting cold, getting caught out in the rain, particularly when you don’t know when your next meal is coming from.
Q: Are you worried about the winter?
A: Not really. The winters here seem to be getting milder every time.
Q: What worries you the most about how modern society relates to food?
A: We work so hard, 24-7 a lot of people. It’s not that they don’t know what to eat, it’s simply they don’t have time to relate to their food. And through relating to their food, in that slow and meaningful way, they don’t have time to relate to each other as well.
Q: Do you think more people should try foraging?
A: There should be an international wild food day, when everyone tries wild food, keeping in mind the insect species that also depend on such plants. It would be an education in the effort that goes into producing it and also in learning to appreciate what’s around you.
Q: Any advice for rookie foragers?
A: Do a soup or a nice salad for starters. Salad is where it is at, better to look for that matter.
Q: How do you respond to some of your critics?
A: I’m actually surprised by the amount of support I’ve had. Most people I encounter are just interested and curious. I’m sure there are people out there that could feel that what I’m doing is a statement against their lifestyle, but I never try to be aggressive or confrontational about things. The idea is to inspire, not to make people feel bad about themselves.
Q: After the year is up, what will your first meal be?
A: I’m just at the stage now where cravings for things like treats, custards and coffee are kind of evaporating. I’ve begun to wonder if after a year I’ll want to go back to that. But then maybe incrementally, I will want something. I can barely think what’s going to happen week to week, let alone what’s going to happen in a year.
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